The Invisible Hand of Movie Advertising

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If one of the things you like best about going to the movies is that there are no ads to interrupt the drama, you’re only seeing half the picture. Movies are packed with advertising – but when it’s done well, you’re never even going to notice.

Product placement has long been a staple in the cupboard of movie financing and can be traced all the way back to the era of silent film. It’s a way to generate additional revenue for making the movie, and gives companies a rare opportunity to pump their brand without being obnoxiously annoying.

Audiences rarely notice this type of advertising, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t working. The popularity of Reese’s Pieces shot up 85% after the release of ET. Tom Cruise boosted the sales of Ray Ban sunglasses over 40% by wearing them for most of Top Gun. Unfortunately, we have no idea of how many people stopped off for a big Mac after listening to John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson discuss MacDonald’s in Pulp Fiction.

The car industry in particular has long promoted various makes and models by placing their vehicles in the thick of the movie action. Aston Martin has been James Bond’s ride of choice since Sean Connery was at the wheel, and Chevrolet saw a huge spike in Camaro sales after their yellow auto-bot saved the day in Transformers. At times, the car has even stolen the show. There’d be no Italian job without the Mini Coopers and Michael J. Fox would never have traveled Back to the Future without the DeLorean.

At times, brands are so pervasive that the audience comes to see the product as an additional character. This happened most notably in Castaway where the Wilson volleyball took on a human persona. The Nokia phone in the Matrix became a lifeline for Keanu Reeves, and the White Castle Burgers take on mythic proportions for Harold and Kumar.

In the case of Reese’s Pieces and White Castle, lesser known brands shot to instant fame through their placement in successful movies. In other instances, popular brands will partner with specific movies to have their product connote a certain image or lifestyle. Think of Tiffany’s relationship with The Great Gatsby or the reputed $45 million Heineken paid to have Daniel Craig’s Bond choose beer over martinis.

Product placement can also lead to a symbiosis between a filmmaker and the brand owner. Many deals involve the brand marketing the film in exchange for the film promoting the brand. You’ll see this a lot with food products and restaurants. A prominent Dunkin Donuts reference in a movie, for instance, could be rewarded with free movie promotion on the restaurant’s paper bags or cups.

There are, of course, many examples of product placement gone terribly wrong. The Internship was roundly booed for being a two-hour commercial for Google. Tristar was sued by Reebok when Cuba Gooding’s character in Jerry Maguire roundly criticized the company for not sponsoring his football career. And that was after Reebok paid a tidy sum to have its products featured in the film. For the most part, however, product placements are unobtrusive and most audiences feel an affinity for a familiar brand on the screen, if they notice it at all.

In terms of return on investment, product placement has proven to be pure gold for dozens of different brands. The final and best example is the Etch-a- Sketch. The little red box has been frustrating children since 1960. About one kid in a thousand can get the knobs to draw anything more sophisticated than a stick figure, and most of them eventually get hurled into the back of the closet and forgotten.

Until Toy Story. After the release of Disney’s 1995 blockbuster, sales of the Etch-a- Sketch went up a whopping 4,000%. Whether small children could actually make them do anything now seemed entirely beside the point.

With benefits for both filmmakers and corporate clients, product placement remains a key part of the financing matrix in the film and entertainment industry. Things have calmed down a little since 2013 when Man of Steel reportedly made more than $160 million from product placements alone, but its still a viable, proven, and eminently profitable undertaking.

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